A Mid-Winter Weekend in Wichita

The past weekend was full of national and international news well worth pondering, what with the latest developments in the impeachment trial and the mostly bad reviews of the big trade agreement with China and all the rest of it, but local events proved more preoccupying. There was another earthquake that awoke us from our post-church nap on Sunday, both bitter losses and a huge win for the local sports teams, heartbreaking news that a dear old friend of ours from the local music scene had died, and another glorious celebration of the city’s very vibrant subculture at Kirby’s Beer Store’s annual Meat Fest.
The earthquake was unsettling, as they always are, but we looked around and saw no apparent damage was done and quickly resumed our nap. They’ve been happening less often since the Okies started regulating all the fracking they’re doing for oil and gas, and the price of oil and gas is still low around here, so we regarded it as no big deal and made our way to the Meat Fest.
Our beloved Wichita State University basketball team had a horrible week, losing to a lesser Temple University Owls squad on the road and then suffering a Saturday home loss to a University of Houston Cougars team that we have to admit is probably better, and they’re likely to fall several spots in the rankings. They’re still an ahead-of-schedule freshman-laden team with a fairly promising half-a-season left and a very promising season awaiting next year, however, and after Sunday’s American Conference Championship game the Kansas City Chiefs are heading to their first Super Bowl in 50 years. As much as Wichitans resent Kansas City’s condescending big city attitude, pretty much everybody around here roots for the Chiefs, and even at Kirby’s Beer Store, even during Meat Fest, the win was carefully watched and wildly celebrated.
If you should ever find yourself in Wichita we urge you to enjoy the many fine restaurants and the surprisingly fine collection at the Wichita Art Museum, or the unexpectedly excellent offerings of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Wichita Musical Theater, and to drive through the picturesque College Hill and Riverside neighbors and take in the Keeper of the Plains as the beautiful sunsets fall over the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers, and take in all the other impeccably old fashioned and classy charms of the city, but we also recommend Kirby’s Beer Store. It’s a tiny and dingy dive in the heart of the ghetto and just across the street from the WSU president’s residence and next door to a currently defunct laundromat, but enjoys a national and international reputation as a delightfully eccentric joint with a delightfully eccentric clientele.
The mostly older and university-employed afternoon regulars make for formidable competition in the ritualistic daily watchings of Jeopardy!, and provide plenty of the interesting conversation that is so hard to come by these days, but after dark the bar is usually full of subcultural twenty-somethings hypnotically swaying to the weirdly wide range of music that Kirby’s nightly offers. Some of it is cacophonous awfulness to our aged and highly educated ears, but you’d be surprised how much of it is fresh and fun and very well done. At the this point we’d put the local music scene, which begins at Kirby’s Beer Store one leads up to the concert hall at Century II, up against most of those condescending big cities.
Kirby’s has been around since ’72, and for the past quarter century or so has hosted an annual Meat Fest at mid-winter, which involves the regulars grilling all sorts of meat for one another anyone else shows up on the frigid patio during an opening-to-closing and well-attended four-day music festival. For the most part they book the best acts of the past year, and for the most part it’s an impressive showcase. This year’s lineup didn’t include The Haymakers or Sunshine Trucking or anything with Nathan Williams, among several other excellent Wichita musicians, and there were a couple of bands we found cacophonously awful, but there was a lot to like.
If you like your rock ‘n’ roll hard and fast and full of catchy pop hooks False Flag ICT delivered it’s usual solid set, and our pal Jesse Howes once again demonstrated that the saxophone is a punk rock instrument with The Giant Thrillers, and those Dios Mofos also sounded pretty good. If you prefer something more acoustic, there’s a long-haired and bearded guitar-and-mandolin and bass trio called Pretend Friend that we highly recommend, and a more pinkish long-haired and bearded banjo-and-guitar-and-bass trio called The Calamity Cubes that we quite like.
Petitions were passed around to save the iconic Century II building and its perfectly fine concert theaters from greedy developers, which is a matter of local concern to all sorts of culture vultures, and a good time was had by all. For many of us there was a certain pall cast over the affair, however, by the death on Saturday of Tom West.
West had his first beer at Kirby’s on the first day it opened back in ’72 as a replacement to A Blackout, the notorious hippie bar the cops had recently shut down a few blocks away, and he was well liked by everyone he met there. If you’ve seen “The Big Lebowski” you might imagine him as a more countrified and overall-wearing version of “the Dude,” with the same sublime counter-cultural insouciance, but that wouldn’t quite get it. “Fats” — as he didn’t mind being called — was sui generis. He spent his last days in the south-of-Haysville town of Peck, and if you’ve seen “Green Acres” you can quite accurately imagine it as “Hooterville,” but he was a knowledgeable and resourceful fellow and his even more countrified-looking wife can dazzle you with her knowledge of history and current events, as well as her quilting.
He was also a top-notch guitar picker and a mainstay of the local music scene for a long while. He was the formative leader of such locally influential groups as The Cornfed Rubes and The Bluegrass Spiders, any always welcome guest at the Winfield Festival and other jam sessions, and arguably the inventor of the hipster-meets-hayseed style that makes Wichita music so cool. He’d drop into Kirby’s every year around Christmas time and bring candy that he and his wife had made, and on other occasions he’d come in and pass around peculiar-looking cigarettes, and everything was always mellow with Tom West, which came in handy on a cold winter day in Wichita.
The Meat Fest bacchanal always winds down on Sunday with biscuits and gravy and sausage and mostly acoustic and folky sets, and West would have been pleased. There was a fine set by the beguilingly emotive Kaitlyn Meyer, who West had praised last year, and the Meat Fest also introduced to the Wichita barroom stage the remarkable talent of a local 15-year-old girl named Evann McIntosh. You can see for yourself that she’s quite good, and she wowed a crowd of afternoon regulars and her family and friends during her set, was utterly charming in a brief conversation, and she didn’t even get the three free Old Milwaukees that Kirby’s performers are usually paid.
All in all, it gives us hope that he earthquakes will dissipate and spring will come, that the ‘Shockers will be in the tourney and the Chiefs will be Super Bowl champions, and that the best of Wichita will persist. We wish as much for the rest of the world.

— Bud Norman

After a Slow and Busy Weekend

For the next week or so the denouement of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination awaits the results of a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe of his high school days, and for now the special counsel’s ongoing investigation of the “Russia thing” seems on a traditional hold until the mid-term elections, and although those mid-term-elections are already heating up in this cool fall weather they’re still more than a month away. In the meantime, we had a pretty good weekend around here.
The highlight of our weekend was accompanying our beloved Mom to the Saturday night opening of a new exhibit at the nearby Wichita Art Museum. She very much wanted to go, but these days our our beloved Dad isn’t getting around well, so she called to ask if we were willing to accompany her instead, and of course we couldn’t refuse the offer. Our Mom is the main reason we’re such culture vultures, as she dragged us every few months to the Wichita Art Museum and subjected us to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s young people concerts and took us on weekly visits to the Wichita Public Library,as well as occasional visits to nights at the local theater, and we were eager to partially repay the debt and re-live the precious memories of our childhood.
The new exhibit at the Wichita Art Museum features some exceptional photographs of the subtly beautiful Kansas landscape, as well as some tough-but-true accounts of the off-beat Kansas farmers who keep it going, and if you happen to be in Wichita while it’s still up we highly recommend it. Our beloved Mom seemed impressed that we were friends with most of The Haymakers, the outstanding country-jazz-folky-and-bluesy outfit that played the opening, although the usual bass player was preoccupied due to his first-chair gig with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, and we were delighted to introduce her to several of our weird culture vulture friends, and they all seemed to enjoy meeting our beloved Mom, too.
The rest of the weekend was filled with a rousing but relatively early morning worship service at the West Douglas Church of Christ, followed by a long afternoon nap afterwards, and then some joke-swapping with a Navy veteran at Kirby’s Beer Store, and on the whole it was a pretty good weekend. All of the politics is for now unresolved, and won’t be for at least another five weeks or so, but in the meantime things seem to be working out well enough here on the south-central plains of Kansas.

— Bud Norman

Our Favorite Street Artist of the Moment

We’ve been avid art lovers ever since that long ago day when our mother first dragged us along to the Wichita Art Museum to see the Mary Cassatt and the John Steuart Curry and the Albert Pinkham Ryder and the Thomas Eakins and the Winslow Homer and the three — count ’em, three — Edward Hoppers, two of which are very major works, along with the rest of the city’s surprisingly strong collection, but for the past many years we’ve found precious little to like among the new stuff. It’s not just the pointless and overdone abstraction, or the obviously intentional ugliness of it, or that ever-present preachy and polemic quality that Tom Wolfe so brutally described in “The Painted Word,” or even the rigid conformity of the ugly and polemical point that almost all of it seems to be making, but mostly the annoying air of self-righteousness by all those college-educated artists who think themselves “brave” and “transgressive” and “outsider” for scribbling works that are clearly meant to convey the consensus of bien pensant arty world opinion and be safely ignored by the rest of society.
Imagine our delight, then, to hear about the fellow who calls himself Sabo and has lately been creating a bona fide artistic controversy by plastering the streets of Los Angeles with his works. So far as we can tell from the internet images his work is at least somewhat abstractly modern, with the requisite intentional ugliness, and it’s polemic as all get-out, but we have to credit his bravery and transgression and outsider status, because he clearly intends to mock the consensus of bien pensant arty world opinion and let the rest of the society in on his very amusing jokes. One doesn’t need a post-graduate degree in deconstruction theory to see that Sabo is an unrepentant right-wing bastard like ourselves, which is about as brave and transgressive and outsider-y as someone hoping to make an artistic reputation for himself can get, and even the credentialed deconstruction theorists will have to admit that there’s a certain jiu-jitsu genius about using all the stale conventions of “street art” and “guerrilla art” and all the rest of those brave and transgressive and outsider cliches to fight the powers that actually prevail.
Sabo’s latest news-making work is of the conceptual variety, and involves those flashing traffic-signaling signs that the more high-brow critics will note are a poignant symbol of our carbon-emitting automotive society and societal retreat into the stifling hell of suburbia, but he and his co-conspirators have been placing them along the home-to-the-suburb routes inconvenienced by the royal motorcades attendant to the fund-raising of President Barack Obama and presumptive president Hillary Clinton, with such messages as “Democrats Begging 4 Money” and “Hillary Back Begging.” He’d previously attracted Los Angeles’ attention with the more visually polemic works he had ironically and post-modernly mass-produced and then transgressively stuck on bus benches and other public spaces around the city, such as his depiction of one of those scary flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” carrying a Hillary 2016 sign, and failed Texas gubernatorial candidate and left-wing darling Wendy Davis depicted as a pro-abortion Barbie doll, and his pictures of beloved liberals rendered in an obvious allusion to the style of that Shepard Fairey poster of Barack Obama that was so ubiquitous back in ’08, only with the painted word “Drone” rather than “Hope” at the bottom.
So far our favorite Sabo is a portrait of his apparent choice for president, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is depicted with a cigarette dangling from his sneering lips and a riot of gangsta tattoos on his bare-chested and muscle-bound physique. Cruz apparently likes it, too, as he jocularly “tweeted” that the only inaccuracy he noticed was that he doesn’t smoke cigarettes, and in an ironic and post-modern way it reminds us of what we like about the very suit-and-tied and very Republican Cruz’ very brave and transgressive and bareknuckled style of politics, and we suspect that many of the young and hip former Obama voters who fell for that stupid Shepard Fairey poster back in ’08 might at long last have their conformist assumptions challenged in the way that modern art has always claimed to do while they await a bus or straggle down a Los Angeles street. We’re hoping so, at least, because it’s about time the squares started shocking the avante garde.
Back in ’08 pretty much the entirety of the art world was lined up behind Obama, along with academia and Hollywood and journalism and the rest of the opinion-making establishment, and none of them raised any fuss when one of his lackeys in the federal arts-funding establishment made clear that commissions and subsidies and other official considerations were entirely dependent on their continued support of his agenda, and they all adopted the same noticeably worshipful and therefore un-hip attitude toward their Messiah, which seemed so conformist and unthinking and unsophisticated to us retrograde Christians who already had a Messiah, so Sabo is at least something of a breath of fresh air. Over at the longstanding conservative publication The National Review they’re talking about how the Republicans might regain some “cool” in the next election, what with our own early-choice-for-president Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker looking so very bad-ass on that Wisconsin-built Harley-Davidson motorcycle he likes to ride, and the Democrat’s presumptive nominee looking so very grandmotherly with her pant-suits and back-to-the-’90s rhetoric, and although that seems hopeful, what with transgenderism and a wholly fictional Republican war against contraception and the rest of it being the big stories of the day, this Sabo fellow makes us cautiously optimistic they might be right. Perhaps some other aspiringly brave and transgressive artists will also notice how very cowardly and conforming the art world has become, and add some mockery of their own, and the arty world will at long last help us fight the powers actually be.
Sabo has already attracted the attention of The Huffington Post and The Hollywood Reporter and the bus-riding hipsters of Los Angeles, as well as The Central Standard Times way out here in Wichita, and that’s heartening. We don’t expect that his works will outlast Cassatt or Curry or Ryder or Eakins or Homer or Hopper, or any of those other great artists in the Wichita Art Museum’s surprisingly strong collection just around the corner from our Riverside home, all of whom captured those timeless moments of the human condition that anyone on the left or right could recognize and relish, but for right now and right here at this damned moment in time we think he’s doing a hell of a job.

— Bud Norman

The Art of Bankruptcy

Maybe it’s our grumpily conservative political views, or perhaps a certain prairie roughness in our manner and speech, but people often seemed surprised to discover what avid culture vultures we are. In warmer weather we frequently stroll a few blocks through our elegantly aging Riverside neighborhood to visit the Wichita Art Museum, even making the trek during a blinding snowstorm this past brutal winter in order to catch the opening of that terrific George Catlin traveling exhibition, and many a snooty easterner has been taken aback by our familiarity with the finer arts. That’s largely due to our early and ongoing exposure to the Wichita Art Museum, which has taken aback many a snooty easterner with a an unexpectedly fine collection that includes John Steuart Curry, Stuart Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Thomas Eakins, Albert Pynkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, three Edward Hoppers, with two of them major works, and perhaps the most major work by Mary Cassatt.
Such works of art have long exerted a powerful influence on us, ever since Mom first dragged us down to the museum intent on getting her young’un’s some refinement, and remain one of our favorite things about living in Wichita. They can’t help but affect our reaction to an intriguing story in the invaluable Weekly Standard about far-off Detroit, where that beleaguered city has reached a tentative deal to prevent its municipal art museum from selling off its even most significant collection to pay off the debts of decades of mismanagement by a corrupt coalition of Democratic machine politicians and union bosses. The article makes a convincing case that the deal flouts reasonable bankruptcy laws, favors pubic pensioners over other rightful creditors, and reeks of a political cronyism redolent of the Detroit auto industry bail-out, but acknowledges that at least Detroit will get to keep its art. It’s difficult to weigh such competing values, especially for such grumpily conservative culture vultures with a certain prairie roughness such as ourselves, but we’re inclined to go with keeping the art.
The deal would have such well-heeled do-gooder groups as the Ford, Kresge, and Knight Foundations shell out $330 million for the museum’s collection, along with another $350 million from the state of Michigan, and comes with a promise to keep the collection in Detroit and add all the proceedings to the bankruptcy payout to Detroit’s public employee pensioners. We have no sympathy for public employee pensioners, who did so much to drive the city into bankruptcy, and feel sorry for those municipal bondholders who won’t get in on the loot, even if they were suckers to place a bet on Detroit, but otherwise the arrangement does not offend our conservative sensibilities.
We rather like that such long-dead red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists as Ford, Kresge, and Knight are riding to rescue of Detroit’s high-cultural heritage, for one thing, even if the average snooty easterner wouldn’t acknowledge the irony. The same corporate titans that the arty types always disparage have always been the essential patrons of American arts, even if the refined aesthetes won’t notice until their guillotines have finished their dirty work. This requires an amusing amount of denial by the culturati left, especially here in Wichita where the much-vilified Koch family is by far the most generous benefactor of the arts. A punctiliously politically correct friend of ours is affiliated with the Wichita Art Museum, and when we noted that the aforementioned terrific George Catlin exhibition was underwritten by the Fred C. and Mary Koch Foundation she huffily protested that at least there was no money from their evil spawn Charles Koch. We pointed out that the patriarch of the family fortune was an unrepentant John Bircher who earned his anti-communist bona fides by going toe-to-toe with Joe Stalin business negotiation over his pioneering oil-extraction techniques and would probably consider his sons pinko sell-outs she was eager to change the subject. At least her collection’s survival wasn’t dependent on on such a mean old anti-Semite as Henry Ford or the Wal-Mart of his day, the indignity that has befallen the culturati of Detroit. The Knight foundation was named after the co-founder of the newspaper chain that we used to toil for, and the Wichita Art Museum’s inaugural collection was bankrolled by the founder of the local newspaper that it long ago bought out, but somehow our friend won’t be so embarrassed by that.
None of the various strains of conservatism can object to those individuals who have prospered in the capitalist system contributing to the cultural life of their country. Once those contributions have been necessarily bequeathed to the care of the collective, however, the matter does become more complicated. We are sympathetic to the libertarian arguments against public financing of the arts, as most of our satisfying cultural experiences have been with garage bands and Hollywood movies and dime novels and other artists who would never stand a chance with those highfalutin grant-givers, and a certain prairie roughness in us makes us susceptible to the populist argument that the south-siders shouldn’t have to pay even the few pennies they’re being charged to indulge our hoity-toity Riverside tastes. There’s still a strain of conservatism that seeks to conserve the very best of our cultural heritage, however, and ultimately we find it most convincing.
Somewhere in the middle of the liberal-caused fiasco that is Detroit you will still find an extraordinary collection of truth and beauty and the best of Western Civilization, and that is worth conserving. Most Detroiters will prefer the noisome distractions of The Jerry Springer Show and the latest hip-hop releases or the virtual or actual orgies of violence that are staples of the local culture, but those lucky few who happen to wander in might find more worthy aspirations. Rescuing Detroit will require cruel doses of capitalism and a routing of the public sector rackets that have driven the city bankruptcy, but it will also require considerable art.

— Bud Norman